The Evolution of Religious Thought is a small project I’ve been working on for a few months. Although it’s not exhaustive, I feel is fairly representative of the path religion has taken since our primal days. Because the scope of this project has increased, it has become larger than conventionally accepted on blogs, so I have divided it into sections. The first of which – The Genesis of Credulity – is being shared now. As I finalize the remaining sections, I will post them and provide links to their predecessors / successors, as applicable.
As always, I encourage discussion and invite questions. Once the final product is complete, I will release a comprehensive version which will include a bibliography. Thanks!
The Genesis of Credulity
The evolution of religious thought has reached a crux; how fortunate that its future lay not in the hands of those who wish to see it prevail, but in the minds of the critical. Man’s reason has been shackled by centuries of compulsive irrationality, but he is inching towards freedom, towards reality, and towards the truth. With the development and improvement of the scientific method, superstition has been relegated to the diminishing gaps of human knowledge. Thus, where superstition was once needed, it is now superfluous; we progress without it, as Laplace so eloquently affirmed – Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là. Despite being incongruous with historical observation, an infectious inclination to award human achievement to illusory entities has proved to be obdurately persistent. To comprehend such repugnant behavior requires us to examine the genesis of credulity, and to render it obsolete we must perform a cognitive inoculation.
Therefore this study must commence by investigating the relatives of today’s most successful hominidae; and in doing so, we shall find that like us they too demanded explanations for phenomena that surrounded them. Yet, one major exception separates us from our primitive cousins: contemporary standards of substantiation are considerably higher – mostly.
When animism was applied to everything, and the concept of falsifiable evidence had not yet occurred to our much simpler brethren, explanations were accepted with little skepticism. Those few who dared to doubt were easily silenced since refutation requires a counter-explanation, and when both arguments are operating on unsubstantiated speculation, the consensus was to reward the supernatural rather than allowing for ambiguity. That is, it is human nature to assign reason to common experiences, even if that reason is purely speculative.
In consequence of this disposition, supernatural explanations are not only successful, they become indisputable. For how does one dispute a supernatural process? If the process cannot be verified, evidence to the contrary is equally deficient. Carl Sagan described this predicament as our “impatience with ambiguity [which] can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” This overtly facile approach to explaining the natural world is fundamental to the invention of supernatural agents. Likewise, it contributed greatly to man’s hubris with respect to his perceived uniqueness.
Resulting from this unfortunate proclivity, man found answers for everything: earthquakes, winds, rains, solar eclipses, the vicissitudes of the seasons, dreams, death and life itself. It’s also worth noting that there was rarely a distinction between the physical and metaphysical. In fact, men who performed priestly duties were often divine themselves, and worshiped as such. It was not until man began to form communities that we see the inception of spiritual realms; and even then the line was unclear.
This shift from an all-encompassing reality to a dichotomy system – a world separated by physical and metaphysical realms – opened the opportunity for authoritative exploitation. Simply stated, as the early cast of spirits lost their appeal and influence, a corresponding increase of divine mandates inundated early societies from reinvented and enhanced entities. But this new system was often times convoluted. For instance, the etymology of Zeus can be traced to an Indo-European heritage; its root originally meant “to shine”. Zeus was eventually enhanced, which extended his supremacy beyond the clouds, lightning and thunder, to the sky itself. His existence consisted of both physical and metaphysical properties, such as Mount Olympus – a physical peak, yet inaccessible to uninvited mortals.
Accordingly, as these sentient beings were progressively denied access to their gods – a direct correlation with their exodus from nature – an alternative connection to the spirit world was required. Naturally, this union held significant sway over the devout, and it’s no surprise that we find priestly duties entwined with regal command. Such is the case throughout Italy as exemplified by titles such as Rex Sacrificulus, a title held by Rome’s kings but maintained by citizen priests after the Tarquins were banished from Rome.
Because an ancient king often served as his people’s direct conduit with the gods – indeed, sometimes they were gods themselves – the majority could be coaxed into battle or persuaded to remain content, depending on the vague interpretation of auspices. This is no secret. For as long as men have struggled to control the masses, religion has aided them. The Greeks made war and peace depending on the outcome of auspices; ominous shrieks from birds could result in a senator’s impeachment in Rome; and later, when paganism lost its influence over the Western world, verses such as Ephesians 6:5 kept Christian slaves obedient and content.
However, all men were not so easily convinced. They demanded more evidence than the assurances of those who benefited from this worldview. Our inquiring minds propelled the curious and adventurous alike to seek out these deities. They searched the woods, but Medeina was nowhere to be found; they travelled up rivers, but Yam failed to reveal himself; they climbed high mountains, but Uma refused audience. Centuries full of empty tales caused the analytical to reject the old gods, and so, these deities were required to be reinvented again.